The Southern Literary Journal 35.1 (2002) 160-163
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Writing the American Civil War
Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War. By Elizabeth Young. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. xvi + 389 pp. $47.00.
The Political Work of Northern Women Writers and the Civil War, 1850-1872. By Lyde Cullen Sizer. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2000. 368 pp. $45.00.
Scholarship on literature of the American Civil War has traditionally begun in the same place—with Walt Whitman. In Specimen Days, Whitman claimed that "the real war will never get in the books" and this pronouncement has seemed prophetic to the many critics who have subsequently deplored the absence of "good" writing about the war. Edmund Wilson, in his monumental study Patriotic Gore, complains that the American Civil War can be said to have produced "a remarkable literature" only if one is willing to include "speeches and pamphlets, private letters and diaries, personal memoirs and journalistic reports." Locating his own experience within the context of two world wars and the tensions of an uneasy nuclear peace, Wilson is openly dismissive of most literature written during times of conflict: "The unanimity of men at war is like that of a school of fish, which will swerve, simultaneously and apparently without leadership, when the shadow of an enemy appears." Even while he tries to challenge Wilson's contention by demonstrating the extent to which the war "touched" and "engaged" writers of the time, Daniel Aaron nonetheless regretfully agrees in The Unwritten War that the Civil War produced a "paucity of 'epics' and 'masterpieces.'"
Recently, however, literary scholars and historians have begun to interrogate the critical priorities Whitman's assertion has been used to justify. What is "the real war," they have asked, and why is it not representable? Is [End Page 160] public opinion as monolithic as Wilson's reference to "men at war" suggests? In the past decade, scholars like Nina Silber, Kathleen Diffley and Anne Rose have used similar questions to challenge the standard interpretation of the Civil War as a conflict between heroic white men. Two recent books on women's writing during the war materially contribute to this important work of redefinition. The contention shared by Elizabeth Young and Lyde Cullen Sizer is that far from being unwritten, the Civil War was enormously narrated although the authors and texts have been significantly overlooked. Wars, they concur, dramatize the ways in which societies understand sexual difference and, as such, provide an excellent opportunity for change, challenge and re-interpretation of traditional gender roles, an opportunity women writers seized during the Civil War. Indeed, accepting the assumption that war is primarily the business of men on the field of battle, they maintain, has prevented scholars from appreciating the ways in women, children and African Americans were included in the contemporary narration of the Civil War, and subsequently excluded from its memory.
Looking to popular writing from 1861 to 1865, it becomes clear that the home front was considered to be critical for both Confederate and Union partisans. Once this basic fact is established a host of questions arises: What were the most effective ways of convincing women to encourage their husbands, sons and lovers to enlist in the army? How, as the death tolls mounted, could they to be adequately consoled for their personal losses while remaining committed to national goals? And, perhaps most importantly for the works examined here, what active contributions could women make to the war effort? According to popular legend, Abraham Lincoln jokingly located the cause of the conflict with Harriet Beecher Stowe, asking, "Is this the little woman who made this great war?" Was it possible for other women to wield similar influence? If women worked outside the home, spurred by either financial necessity or patriotic zeal, was such behavior, entirely improper according to antebellum norms, appropriate to times of national crisis? At the same time, the war presented equally difficult questions about the status of African Americans. Popular literature of the Civil War...